Ibrahim was still a teenager when Boko Haram took over his town, its fighters raging through the streets he had grown up on, slitting the throats of his neighbours, and rounding up young people, like him, whom they felt they could make use of.
Some civilians got away, fleeing to the forest or caves in the nearby Mandera Mountains. Others, those who managed to avoid the initial massacre, succumbed to life under the Islamic militant group, watching as they raised black flags and declared Gwoza the headquarters of their caliphate – an expanse of territory that at one stage, between 2014 and 2015, stretched to the size of Belgium.
“There was no way to escape. They gathered all the youth, took them and trained them,” explains Ibrahim, now 23, who is only being identified by his first name for safety reasons. He became a fighter with the insurgents, who were well known for indiscriminate killing, mass abductions, forced marriages and sexual slavery.
By the time we meet, Ibrahim has been out of Boko Haram for just 11 months. He was convinced to defect by Nigerian security forces who phoned him directly after getting his number from other escapees. Ibrahim says they promised him skills training, some money, equipment to start a business and a place to live.
After months under surveillance, Ibrahim was released. He thought he had found shelter with his family in a camp for displaced people, where he estimates that hundreds of the so-called “repentant Boko Haram” are living. But weeks later, the government announced a plan to close it, saying camps are no longer necessary because security has improved.
“The government lied,” Ibrahim charges, explaining that he hadn’t been given the tools he needed to set up a business and is now homeless. He is contemplating his options: whether to return to Gwoza, now occupied by the Nigerian military, where he worries about people judging him for his past; or to join a group of five other Boko Haram defectors who would travel nearly 1,700km to Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, in the hopes of finding work.
There is a third option too, one that he knows others in his situation are choosing: rejoining the insurgents.
Ibrahim's story illustrates a microcosm of the challenges presented by an unfathomably huge, yet globally largely forgotten, conflict and humanitarian crisis, where locals and authorities are facing daily quandaries around survival, forgiveness and how to forge the best path towards peace. The nearly 13-year-long insurgency in northeast Nigeria has displaced around 2.4 million people and likely caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, though no one has managed to accurately count them.
It is certainly still a war zone. That is clear from the time you land in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, which is bordered by Niger, Chad and Cameroon. This is the city that birthed Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates as "Western Education is Forbidden". The militant group was founded by Mohammed Yusuf, a popular cleric who was summarily executed by the police in 2009, triggering a violent backlash and the beginning of the conflict.
Both the insurgents and the Nigerian security forces have since been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, murder, torture, intentionally directing attacks against civilians, and the forcible recruitment of children. In December 2020, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor announced that the criteria to open an investigation had been met.
The militants were pushed into more rural areas almost nine years ago. The city's population doubled as displaced people fled here for safety
Maiduguri is now both a city under siege and a refuge from the militants, who were pushed into more rural areas almost nine years ago. The city’s population doubled as displaced people fled here for safety. Armed soldiers patrol inside and outside the airport; new arrivals are greeted by four anti-aircraft guns loaded on the back of vehicles in the carpark.
At points during the insurgency even commercial flights were halted. This time I had no problem boarding a flight with Nigerian airline Arik Air, which suspended flights to Maiduguri for four years because of security concerns.
This was my third visit. During the last two, in 2016 and 2017, the situation was visibly tenser. There were curfews of 6pm or 8pm (an 11pm curfew remains) and, on my second visit, a spate of deadly suicide bombings carried out by young female abductees.
‘Home of peace’
Ironically, or maybe optimistically, vehicle number plates issued in Borno State still read "home of peace", which was set as the state's slogan in better times. On the streets, there are tuktuks and bicycles, but none of the motorbikes ubiquitous across much of Africa, which have been banned because of how easily they can be utilised by attackers.
Today, Maiduguri is also surrounded by a trench. In 2017, the same year the digging began, the Nigerian military implemented a new tactic: creating fortified garrison towns ringed by farms across the state. This was a big about-turn from claims they were winning the war, coming two years after Nigerian president and former dictator Muhammadu Buhari was elected on exactly that promise.
"There's beauty in numbers, there's security in numbers," Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State, told Reuters news agency at the time. "So our target is to congregate all the people in five major urban settlements and provide them with means of livelihood, education, healthcare and of course security. It's a long-term solution, certainly." Aid agencies – whose workers have been attacked, held hostage, and even executed by the insurgents – are effectively barred from leaving the garrison towns and areas under military control.
The day is hot. Outside, children play with plastic bags with string tied to them, which they hold aloft like kites
This left civilians with an impossible choice: should they stay in the protected areas, away from their farms, where they risked disease and starvation, and were dependent on unreliable aid, or live outside the military zones, where they could farm but might be attacked by both insurgents and Nigerian soldiers, who would regard them as Boko Haram supporters or even combatants?
The displaced people I speak to in Maiduguri are not willing to go home. In one neighbourhood, a group gather to tell their stories. The day is hot. Outside, children play with plastic bags with string tied to them, which they hold aloft like kites.
Goni Bukar (55) holds prayer beads in his right hand as he explains that he fled years ago, when Boko Haram attacked. “They were shooting sporadically and killing a lot of people. So many people died and I was able to run.”
In Maiduguri he was reunited with some of his family. Four of his fifteen children and his brother died during the attack. His brother’s children were abducted. Those who survived had swollen legs and nothing to eat. “They were suffering from one disease to another.”
Bukar wipes away tears, explaining that he used to be a farmer, growing millet, peanuts, cowpeas and maize. Now, he gets paid meagre amounts of money to pray for others while his two wives beg on the streets. They have found some peace but no security. “We are in a rented apartment here. I have not paid my bill and the landlord is knocking.”
He says it is not safe for him to return to his farm. As an Islamic malam, a preacher, he would be targeted. “I preach peace,” he says. “Boko Haram interpret the Koran upside down to confuse those who don’t understand it. The malams were the target at the beginning so they wouldn’t preach against Boko Haram. More than 20 malams I knew were killed.”
Some locals benefit from charities such as Christian Aid. Fatima Mustapha (60), who has nine children and 15 grandchildren, says she receives four goats and gets 17,000 naira (€36) each month. She helps others when she can, but feels compelled to be careful, aware her family could also starve if they lose their monthly payments. “Here there is no food, people don’t even have means to take care of their children,” she says.
Falmata Mustapha is one of those suffering. Each day, she walks two hours to and from the city’s trench, passing an army checkpoint and venturing outside the city’s perimeter to collect firewood, though it fetches her less than 200 naira (40 cents). The 50-year-old fled her home six years ago. She takes care of seven children, including her grandchildren, whose father was murdered by militants. “I’m getting no assistance,” she says.
At night, Maiduguri goes dark. There has been no electricity citywide for a year, ever since Boko Haram bombed the transmission lines. Those who can afford it use solar power or diesel generators. “There’s no political will to fix anything,” complains one aid worker.
Abdulrahman A Hashim, who runs a general store in the central Milk Shop area, says electricity used to cost him a maximum of 10,000 naira per month (€21.50); now he pays 30,000 (€64.50) just to light the shop in the evening and keep one fridge on with the generator. “Honestly, the government are trying, they’re telling us that light will come by February or March,” he says, with some hope.
A man who runs an electrical goods shop, and asks not to be named, says his sales have been cut in half. “We used to have customers lining up, people buying irons, kettles, hot plates. All these things use a lot of power. We don’t even import them any more.
“We want to see the light,” he adds, though he is glad the city is a bit safer than before. “It’s getting better, but we pray for a better tomorrow.”
Northeast Nigeria's conflict hit headlines worldwide in April 2014 when 276 schoolgirls were abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, 125km south of Maiduguri. The Nigerian government was slow to react, or even to admit what had happened, until a social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, spread across the world, receiving contributions from Michelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres and Malala Yousafzai.
More than 100 were later freed through mediation or managed to escape, but others died, were killed by Nigerian military air strikes, or married and stayed with their captors.
Many of Maiduguri's residents are bemused that this specific kidnapping garnered so much attention. Abductions are commonplace
Last year a few more Chibok captives left Boko Haram, though sources familiar with their situation say at least one already wants to go back to the Boko Haram life she is now used to.
When you mention it, many of Maiduguri’s residents are still bemused that this specific kidnapping garnered so much attention. Abductions are commonplace. Tens of thousands of people, many of them children, are thought to have been taken since the war began.
In 2016, two years after the Chibok kidnapping, Boko Haram split into factions: one still led by Abubakar Shekau – a man known for releasing rambling, threatening videos in which he leered and cackled – while the other named itself Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP. Former fighters and captives describe regular communication between its members and fighters from the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. They remember the sporadic arrivals of visitors and weapons from countries with an IS presence, including Libya.
While Shekau regarded anyone living outside his territory as a legitimate target, ISWAP appears to be more strategic. Reports say the group is now involved in state-building in its territory: charging taxes, digging wells, providing some healthcare and putting caps on food prices.
Last May, ISWAP achieved what a decade of Nigerian military efforts could not, and became effectively responsible for Shekau’s death. The former Boko Haram leader was said to have blown himself up during a battle between the two groups. In the subsequent months, thousands of his fighters defected.
The Nigerian military ended up placing thousands of these fighters – whom locals call the “repentant Boko Haram” – in a camp inside Maiduguri known as Hajj. Residents of that neighbourhood complain that they were not consulted before it was set up.
In the months since, they say they smell open defecation and hear former fighters arguing between themselves at mealtimes, complaining the food they are given is not enough. “Almost every day they used to shout or protest,” one man says. “They are fighting among themselves at breakfast and dinner, abusing each other.” He says he often hears the words “para yanume” (“fuck you”).
Journalists are not allowed to enter, but I look through a hole in one of the camp’s walls. There is a line of white tents and a group of men seemingly constructing a toilet. Locals tell me detainees sometimes play music or football, or pray in an enclosed area next to the local mosque. “We are worried because the fence is small,” says one resident. “Many people are fearful. This is a residential area.” He says one man even sold his house because of the placement of the camp.
“They have nowhere to go,” says another resident, wondering about the camp’s future. “If they are not de-radicalised, people will kill them.”
Medics tell me to avoid one tent because it is full of camp detainees. I see them lying on beds, some connected to intravenous fluids. There is clearly a cholera outbreak here
Former Boko Haram fighters who surrendered before the latest wave have been allowed to visit friends in the Hajj camp, though most aid agencies are still barred.
Another day, in a cholera treatment centre, medics tell me to avoid one tent because it is full of Hajj camp detainees. I see them lying on beds, some connected to intravenous fluids. There is clearly a cholera outbreak here. Another source says as many as eight people have died because of it. “If you encourage them to surrender and you can not engage them or take good care of them, isn’t it better to engage them in battle?” a Maiduguri resident asks me.
Surrenders continue. The military says more than 24,000 “terrorists” have given themselves up since May, including more than 11,000 children and 7,550 women. What to do with them is a question that may determine the future of this region.
When I ask how they know the surrendered fighters are not a threat, Samuel Sesay, Unicef's child protection manager for Borno State, says the so-called disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process is basically "non-existent". DDR has been used in other conflicts to support ex-combatants so they can be reintegrated in society and become active participants in a peace process.
“How do you know who is a a combatant or non-combatant? How do you know who is a farmer or who participated? To what level?” Sesay asks, seemingly without a clear answer.
Since 2017, Unicef has been involved in the care of more than 5,000 unaccompanied children who lived with Boko Haram. Staff trace their relatives or place them with foster families. "Almost 99 per cent have never been to school," Sesay says, calling them a "lost generation".
On the other side, Unicef has succesfully encouraged the northeast’s vigilante groups to stop recruiting children. Boko Haram was first chased out of Maiduguri by the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) vigilantes, armed with sticks, nearly a decade ago. They are visible across the city, sitting at the entrances to buildings or on intersections, often behind walls of cement bags.
A central post office has been commandeered as their headquarters. Goats wander around the compound. A man washes his boots with soapy water while another blows a kiss. A monkey, which CJTF spokesman Bello Danbatta greets fondly, is tied to a tree.
Sitting in his almost empty office, Danbatta explains that the group now has 26,332 members. He calls it “a child of necessity… doing the will of God”. They no longer need sticks to protect themselves - Nigeria’s military loans them AK47s - and members are paid 20,000 naira (€40) per month. “There is synergy between all the security agencies,” he says.
Almost 500 vigilantes have died in the war. Yet Danbatta welcomes the surrender of Boko Haram fighters, whom he calls “the BH”. “It’s a welcome development… They have tired of this insurgency… The government have been broadcasting that those people are our relatives, they’re our people. You cannot use a cutlass to cut your own hand.”
Still, he says, the situation is unstable. “The madness of Boko Haram is that at any time they can try to move place to place and attack innocent people.” He says fighters can disguise themselves as civilians. “Those BH, they don’t write it on their face.”
As to when the insurgency will finally end, Danbatta says that is up to the will of God. “If God says it will end this December, it’s possible.”
Additional reporting by Sani Adam